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Old Mortality by Sir Walter Scott
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Old Mortality is not as well known nor is it as popular as Rob Roy, Ivanhoe or Kenilworth, all of which followed it in the five years subsequent to its publication in 1816. It also precedes The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride of Lammermoor, both of which were part of Scott's series of novels "Tales of My Landlord". But Old Mortality is considered one of Scott's best novels.
Under the reign of the last Stewarts, there was an anxious wish on the part of government to counteract, by every means in their power, the strict or puritanical spirit which had been the chief characteristic of the republican government. The novel takes its title from the nickname of Robert Paterson, a Scotsman of the 18th century who late in life decided to travel around Scotland re-engraving the tombs of 17th century Covenanter martyrs. The first chapter of the novel describes a meeting between him and the novel's fictitious narrator.
The novel tells the story of Henry Morton, who shelters John Balfour of Burley, one of the assassins of Archbishop James Sharp. As a consequence Morton joins Burley in an uprising of Covenanters (who wanted the re-establishment of Presbyterianism in Scotland) which was eventually defeated at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679, by forces led by the Duke of Monmouth and John Graham of Claverhouse. The bulk of the novel describes the progress of the rebellion from its initial success at the Battle of Drumclog, and the growth of factionalism which hastened its defeat. Henry's involvement in the rebellion causes a conflict of loyalties for him, since he is in love with Edith Bellenden who belongs to a family who oppose the uprising. Henry's beliefs are not as extreme as those of Burley and many other rebel leaders, which leads to his involvement in the factional disputes. The novel also shows their oppressors, led by Claverhouse, to be extreme in their beliefs and methods. Comic relief is provided by Cuddie Headrigg, a peasant who reluctantly joins the rebellion because of his personal loyalty to Morton, as well as his own fanatical mother.
This novel is both interesting and exciting in its historical detail. More importantly it addresses the questions of the relative merits of 'enthusiasm' and moderation, of extremism and consensus, when the nation is swept by rebellion and violent change. ( )
1 vote jwhenderson | Jan 24, 2013 |
Anyone who thinks jihadism is utterly foreign to the Western mind should this book, or some other account of the religious wars of Europe. "Christ and no quarter."
  ritaer | Jun 11, 2011 |
The situation Scott sets out in Old Mortality lends itself to facile parallels with the modern world: a small but vocal religious minority have resorted to assassination and terrorist action to try to overturn a secular, foreign-sponsored puppet administration and establish a government based on their own religious principles; the army is perpetrating human rights abuses in trying to put down the insurgency and maintain public order with the help of foreign troops; decent, ordinary people are caught in the middle between the two sides. Obviously, there are ways in which all religiously-motivated civil wars are much the same wherever and whenever they take place, but we shouldn't get too carried away...

The real problem Scott had to deal with in putting his case for moderation was the classic one of constructing a story with a good, moral hero at its centre without making it dull. In this particular case it was exacerbated by the need to give the hero, Henry Morton, ideas about religious tolerance, human rights, and the rule of law that aren't really plausible for someone living 30 years before the birth of David Hume. This anachronism is probably more obvious to a modern reader than it would have been to Scott's contemporaries, and it rather undermines the credibility of the rest of the story. Probably because of this, I found it much more difficult to identify with the moral arguments than in The Heart of Mid-Lothian, where Scott found a clever way to rearrange the conventional romantic structure of the narrative to keep the "hero" offstage and put a much less obvious character at the centre of the story. It also doesn't help that we have to fight our way through several levels of narrators before we get to the start of the actual story.

On the other hand, there's a huge amount to enjoy in Old Mortality. Scott dealt very creatively with the problem of language. The Covenanters' Old Testament rant and the Scots dialect of the working-class characters probably aren't really any more authentic a representation of 17th century dialogue than the standard English of the gentry, but they give the characters who use them an intelligible but very individual voice, and add greatly to the pleasure of reading the story. For most readers, the really memorable characters are going to be Cuddie Headrigg and his mother Mause; Poundtext, MacBriar, and the other preachers; and of course Lady Margaret Bellenden and her memories of Charles II taking his disjune at Tillietuddlem Castle. ( )
2 vote thorold | Jul 12, 2010 |
A very early (1816) historical novel set in Scotland in 1679 during the religious wars against the last Stuart kings. Scott is recognised as having created the genre of historical novels in the Waverley series, and this book seems like a fully fledged modern historical novel - a mix of fictional and real characters set in a realistic context. It is good stuff, but the Scots dialog is a little inpenetrable, and needed 100+ pages of noted to translate, and to explain. The author balances the views of the different sides - enough good and bad on both sides to allow the reader to draw their own conclusion. Seems very modern for its time, but includes the fantastic plot twists that are familiar from other 19th century fiction. Read February 2009 ( )
1 vote mbmackay | Aug 30, 2009 |
Isn't it nice to find a person who knows history almost entirely by tradition? History to Scott means the stories remembered in the old families, or sometimes the stories remembered by sects and villages. I should say he was almost the last person in modern Europe who did know it that way: and that, don't you think, is at the back of all his best work. Claverhouse, say, was to Scott not 'a character' out of Macaulay (or Hume or Robertson) but the man about whom old Lady so and so tells one story and about whom some antediluvian local minister's father told another...

But of all the Scott characters I know, I give the palm to three above all the others - the Baron of Bredwardine [in Waverley], Cuddy Headrigg [in Old Mortality], and Baillie [Nichol] Jarvie [in Rob Roy].
- from a 13 April 1929 letter to his brother, in The collected letters of C.S. Lewis, volume I
3 vote C.S._Lewis | Mar 29, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sir Walter Scottprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Welsh, AlexanderEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140430989, Mass Market Paperback)

The story opens dramatically with the repercussions of the murder of the Archbishop of St.Andrews by a group of "Covenanting Whigs" and spans ten years of tumult: from the defeat of John Graham of Claverhouse by the covenanters at Drumclog, and the victory of the Duke of Monmouth over the Covenanters at Bothwell Bridge, to the aftermath of the batle at Killiecrankie in 1689.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:50 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Published in 1816 and set in seventeenth-century Scotland, this historical novel is part of the series Tales of My Landlord . Henry Morton joins the rebellious Covenanters, fighting for the reestablishment of Presbyterianism in Scotland during the reign of the Stuarts. Morton's loyalties are torn, however, as he is in love with Edith Bellenden, whose family opposes the rebels.… (more)

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